Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Long Progression: Espresso

I find it interesting and amusing how there is this long progression of development in tastes in the culinary arts.  For instance, newbie wine drinkers usually start with something light and sweet, and after a long process of defining their pallet,  will eventually find that wine distasteful and instead go for a brutal, dry Cabernet Sauvignon.  At least I will.  Similarly, those who subsist on chicken fingers will never understand the delicate flavors and amazing complexities of a foie gras.  But frankly, I can enjoy either equally.  Maybe I need some more work on that one...

Espresso is one of these complex and full tastes that isn't easily appreciated without a long history with the coffee bean.  My first coffees were heavily spiked with cream and sugar.  It took many years before relaxing the cream and eliminating the sugar.  I still enjoy a bit of half and half with my morning cup.  But that cup is made from a darkly roasted arabic coffee bean.  Drinking coffee from robusto beans in a jaunty light roast feels like someone is robbing me.  Something is missing or something has been taken.

There is something to be said for how you are introduced to your tastes as well.  I had taken shots of espresso from local US cafes and it never really seemed to tempt my pallet.  It was experimental.  What about this espresso stuff?  There was no process.  Even a good wine requires a full bouquet, a good view through the glass, and the experience as each swallow piques the sensory specialties of each section of your tongue.  Understanding that food takes time.  We are not talking time in the perfunctory sense of the word, but time in the sense of really being present to the experience of not just the food but also the process of the food.

I am going to expect that this idea of being present to your food may be hard to swallow.  (Eh-hem)   After all, it seems that there are so few times in our days that we are fully present to our experience at all.  We are so often preoccupied with the pressure of our day, plans for the future, or worries around some drama that pure experiences get drowned out by the conversations in our heads.

I feel lucky that I was able to take a little time with a new friend one weekend in Strasbourg, France.  We sat at a outdoor cafe in June facing the awesome cathedral in this town and he ordered us each an espresso.  I watched him, fascinated by the care and precision with with he prepared and drank his tiny cup.  Naturally, I copied him and I have since never looked back.  I found that the best preparation comes from the simplest means, a $20 stove-top espresso maker, a can of Italian roast, and some tiny cups.  The hardest part is still slowing down to really experience and enjoy the flavor.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chocolate Bar: Temptation Made Easy

On the edge of East 4th Street, Cleveland’s gastronomic Mecca, where Vivo once stood, the Chocolate Bar recently opened its doors. A franchise restaurant with another location in Buffalo, the name alone generated a certain buzz across town and peaked the interest of some friends who know a thing or two about the food industry.
Thus, on a chilly mid-January evening, after a delicious dinner at Greenhouse, the four of us headed to Chocolate Bar for decadence and discussion.

Walking in from the Euclid entrance (vs. the Arcade), we immediately noticed the counter, selling premium chocolates as well as t-shirts with clever chocolate expressions.

Also, while some of the previous tenant’s interiors seemed familiar, significant changes within the space, including different lighting, an elevated corner platform and a glass refrigerator showcasing an array of goodies, made it evident that someone new has arrived. Additionally, on a background screen, “Willy Wonka” (the remake) plays, sans sound. From our initial impression, we knew we crossed into a chocolate zone and couldn’t wait to sit down and enjoy some delicacies to curb our cravings.

The quiet Monday evening provided seating flexibility and quick service. Our waitress arrived promptly and, from the get go, permeated a great energy: not only did she bring the men the custom drink they ordered without any hassle, but she also hammed it up with us, revealing a personality that fit well within a theme restaurant.
To be clear, Chocolate Bar features a full menu, including appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches and main dishes. But, with its immediate name association, the four of us ordered the following five desserts: The Belgian Chocolate Pyramid ($6.95), “Belgian chocolate mousse with a hint of hazelnut praline covered in a shell of chocolate,” Frozen Hot Chocolate ($9.95) [pictured, bottom] “Made famous in NYC,” Kahlua Heath Bar Torte ($6.59) [pictured, center] “a smooth rich chocolate mousse with a hint of Kahlua, Heath bar and crushed cookie bottom,” Hot Fudge ($7.95) “Vanilla ice cream, homemade hot fudge, real whipped cream,” and an Alp’ Accino ($12.95) [pictured, top], a trademarked “Chocolate Bar original liquor milkshake.”

The mere anticipation of these gluttonous delights aroused an excitement within us, and anyone needing to lure in a potential mate should keep this sensation in mind. Regardless of one’s age group, Chocolate Bar is a foolproof destination for anyone in the early dating or relationship rekindling stages. With its divine menu of food options, dimmed atmosphere, swanky location and alcoholic ambrosial pourings – including over twenty distinct martini choices – it will spice up a mood, opening doors that might otherwise remain closed.

Thus, when our food arrived, we were more than ready to embrace the offerings. The generous alcohol of the Alp’ Accino, a heavenly child-like concoction, quickly reminded us that it’s very much a grown-up drink. Barring the over-indulgent portions of whipped cream on most of the desserts we ordered, the iced hot chocolate also resonated quite well with this group. The other three desserts, while all in wonderful presentation and in various degrees of texture, felt almost interchangeable. As one of my friends stated, “Everything ends on the same note.” Another friend strongly recommended a comeback visit, to try different menu items, for better overall restaurant assessment.

Completely unplanned, as life usually happens, three days later, an hour after receiving a text from a Chicago friend in town on business, I joined him and his crew of architects at Lola’s, where the gentlemen wrapped up their dinner. Afterwards two of the architects, whom I’ve both known for over twenty years, and I headed north, back to Chocolate Bar. In the midst of a post-game crowd, with downtown Cleveland alive with energy, the three of us entered what felt like a completely different venue. Suddenly, Chocolate Bar was packed. Specifically, the bar was packed with patrons and the overall vibe had a certain mojo going.
Our waiter, friendly, warm and quick, brought out our orders: Dark Hot Chocolate ($5.95), Roarin’ Root Beer Float ($5.95) with bourbon ($2.50) and an appetizer – Steak Crostini ($9.95), “grilled steak with garlic baguette, provolone, caramelized onions and parsley oil.” The crostini – juicy and full of flavor – tasted scrumptious, even at 11:15PM, and the gentlemen were quite pleased with their drinks.

To truly have a happy and memorable experience at Chocolate Bar, one thing to keep in mind when ordering your desserts is which school of chocolate you fall into: sugar or cocoa. If the former, you will love the heavy portions of whipped cream and many of the beautiful and quite sweet desserts. If the latter, look for items marked using dark chocolate, hold the whipped cream and lean towards items that use branded ingredients in the recipe – flavors that you already know.

Overall, an experience at Chocolate Bar lifts the spirits and taps into a sensual subconscious. The quick and friendly service, wide menu of options and beautiful presentation stage this new concept spot as an excellent extension of East 4th Street. So give Chocolate Bar a try. Temptation awaits you.

For hours and additional menu info, visit

Reprinted with permission from

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Retro Burgercraft: It’s no fiction, Five Guys satisfies

During the post-holiday season, my neighbor Jenn and I took a work lunch break and headed to Lakewood’s new foodie destination: Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

While other Cleveland locations exist (there’s at least six in the area), the Detroit Avenue Culinary Mile, home to numerous and quite diverse dining options, only recently welcomed this Arlington, Virginia sensation.

Jenn and I found metered parking right in front of the restaurant, a good thing considering the block’s parking lot is behind the building and there’s no backdoor access. Not a big deal in the summer, or for anyone from a high-traffic city, but in the winter, proximity from car door to front door is key.
We walked in and immediately noticed the retro red and white and the long path towards the back of the restaurant, guided by multiple color-coordinated bags and boxes of peanuts and potatoes. Customers can nosh on the peanuts, for free, while waiting for the food to be cooked. We also heard Led Zepplin on the loud speaker, as, we later learned, classic music is the soundtrack of this eatery. Media-bragging signs cover the walls, including proclaiming Five Guys the “Willy Wonkas of Burgercraft.”

Taking everything in, as we approached the counter, the very nice young man in designer glasses taking our order first asked if we’ve been to a Five Guys before, and, as neither of us had, explained the super short menu: Burgers (regular), Burgers (small), Kosher-style hot dogs, fries and drinks (pop and water). To my disappointment, no milkshakes. What would Vincent Vega do? The cashier continued, “The regular burger has two patties, while the small burger has one. I’d recommend each of you order the small. Also, pick any toppings you’d like, they are all free.” Decisions, decisions. Following his recommendation, Jenn and I each ordered a regular cheeseburger, a soft drink and one cup of fries to share.
With Santana serenading us, Jenn and I sat down and, while waiting for the food to arrive, began to observe the place and its customers: Five Guys doesn’t really feel like a diner, nor like that other burger chain with red as its primary color. Five Guys resonates the atmosphere of a place one could stop and eat at on a long cross-country road trip. (That is, before the highway service stops all began to look alike and offer the same contractual chain food “options.”)

Casual bleached wood dining furniture fills up the new space and plenty of seating exists for the rotating crowd: white and blue collar, older, kids with parents and everyone in between. Like characters in a movie, literally anyone could walk into this place, looking for something old or something new, or, just passing through.

One of the servers brought out our order and, though we’d be eating “in,” the food came out in bags and not on trays. Personally, I prefer a little more substance between my food and the table it’s on. Jenn and I eagerly opened our bags and took out our meals. But, before we dug in, I noticed a piece of bacon sticking out of my burger. To quote Jules Winnfield, the Pulp Fiction religiously righteous assassin, played perfectly by Samuel Jackson, “I don’t dig on swine.”

Thus, I quietly took out the pork strips before taking my first bite. The burgers were very juicy and the buns: fresh and soft. But the winner in our lunch ensemble was the French fries. While so many other chains have messed around with the oil on their fries so much that one never knows what to expect when heading into a familiar location, I now vote that all potato, moving forward, be cooked in peanut oil. These are, quite possibly, the best French fries I’ve ever had.

After emptying our soft drinks, and realizing we still had half a serving of these incredible morsels left in the bag, I refilled our beverages at the self-serve fountain and returned to our table, when Jenn and I noticed some of the staff seated in front of black mini-laptops with light reflecting in the readers’ eyes, all focused on company training. What are the laptops saying? What’s inside? We may never know.

On the company website, one of the reviews, from The Virginian-Pilot, headlines “Get a tasty burger at Five Guys Burgers and Fries.” Tasty burger. The only time I’ve ever heard that combination of words was in Pulp Fiction, when Jules, along with partner in crime Vincent Vega (John Travolta), breaks into a college student’s apartment, only to take his lunch, amongst other things, away from him. Between the classic rock music, the road-trip like atmosphere and the very tasty burgers, even righteous Jules would be satisfied at Five Guys. For hours and a location near you, visit

Reprinted with permission from

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pasta, Pasta, Pasta

The comfort of staple foods plays a big part in why I cook and what I choose to put on my menu.  There is a rich history in grains of rice, beans, potatoes and breads.  These foods make me think of the countries and cultures that have subsisted on them for centuries on one hand, and about how my family has lived on them with the other hand.  Few foods provide a more dramatic culinary springboard than pasta.  For the first 30 years of my life, my lens of italian-based foods were based on pasta.  Fortunately, frequent exposure to eastern rice noodles and other cultures has really shown how this staple can be so diversely used.

Over the last few months, I have been learning more and more about these staples.  I have baked most of my own bread over the last three months and have really enjoyed the process and the results.  Frankly, the idea of making my own pasta was a little intimidating.  How can such an important food be only two ingredients (flour and eggs)?  There must be really something to it.

Recently, however, I read a great book that prompted me to gather up my courage.  The book is called, "The School of Essential Ingredients."  It is written artfully by Erica Bauermeister.  There are few things that I love more than when a good book provides me with insight.  This is such a book.  It reminds me to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n and enjoy the process.  As a wise person told me this last week, "How can we be happy, when we are not even present?"  Pasta really brings me into the present and helps me let loose of my constant forward focus.  I think that is part of what has really drawn me to making bread and pasta recently.  The process forces you to be present and the creation of something so fulfilling brings me great joy.  Often, when I create, I miss the experience of joy that comes with it because I am not present - I am already on to the next thing.

I haven't tried my pasta yet.  I made lasagna noodles and cooked it up last last night.  It was a bit of work, but I really enjoyed it.  In the spirit of Lillian's kitchen from this great book, here is the recipe for making pasta:

Homemade Pasta

Two Handfuls of Flour
Three Eggs

Softly plop two handfuls of flour onto a counter and make a hole in the middle with your fingers so that it looks like a volcano.  Break the eggs into the middle of the volcano.  With a fork beat the eggs together to break the yolk and slowly start to absorb the flour into the eggs until it is fully absorbed.  If the dough becomes sticky, add more flour.  If the dough becomes crumbly, add water a little bit at a time.  Knead for 20 minutes until the dough becomes silky and springy.  Break into four balls and set on the counter.  Cover with an inverted bowl and let rest for one hour.

After an hour, take each ball and roll it out on your counter with a rolling pin until very thin (you know how thin pasta is).  Pull and roll, flipping the pasta and rolling consistently.  Once the dough is rolled to the right thickness, take a knife or pizza cutter and cut the pasta into the desired shape.  Very thin slices for spaghetti, thicker for linguine, really thick for lasagna.  After the pasta is cut, let it sit for another hour.  Then use however you would use pasta (boil, etc.)